Kage Baker liked to acknowledge October as the season of monsters. She was fascinated by monsters.
Not gory, squelchy, slimy monsters -not modern monsters, really, at all. She preferred the older and more classic meanings of the word: a prodigy or marvel. Something of extraordinary excellence or value. Of an unusual success or goodness. Even simply something large, or a combination of animal and human properties. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, which revels in definitions as all-encompassing as possible, rarely evokes evil in its definitions of monster; and even when it does, it leans more on the shock value of unusual deformity than of egregious malice.
Most modern monsters tend toward the blood, gore and evil side. Possibly it’s because most of them are visual creatures in stories meant to be viewed: the movies. Literary monsters have the 4th wall conveniently removed for their performance, and are more inclined to be presented as romantic, sexy, sympathetic or admirable. It’s hard to attribute deep spiritual feelings to a blank-eyed zombie chewing on a toddler’s leg – much easier to indulge a vampire or werewolf who looks like the dishy box boy at the Safeway.
The truly classic cinema monsters do succeed in touching our hearts and souls, though. After all, back in the good old days of Universal Studios masterpieces, they cast a lot of good, real actors as monsters. Karloff is heart-breaking as Frankenstein’s Monster, always projecting the supernal innocence of someone who really didn’t ask to be born. As the Mummy, his hooded eyes and drawn mouth speak volumes of the tragedy of too much knowledge and life. Claude Rains plays the Invisible Man as a manic sort of Puck. And Lugosi’s Dracula is a towering icon of tormented, corrupted nobility, someone who knows what he was and – horribly – what he has become.
A far cry from the modern versions; although Christopher Lee does his best. But then, he’s a real actor, too.
Anyway, these were the sorts of monsters Kage preferred. She had no objections to most science fiction creatures – which have always tended heavily toward giant bugs and blobs. There’s not much personality there, but at least the action rarely descends into the sort of despicable torture porn so common nowadays. And there are always flashes of genuinely scary brilliance – the Monsters of the Id from Forbidden Planet, or the implant-controlled adults in Invaders from Mars. The first two Aliens movies had it, too.
The television show Supernatural tries hard to give dimension to its monsters; and succeeds a lot of the time. It’s not all blood, gore and kinky sex; there are monsters who worry about their day jobs, and fuss with pizza coupons, and play bridge with their neighbors – they have weight and dimension, which is what Kage wanted from a good monster story. The show Grimm has made some good efforts, too; especially since they expanded the role of the horologist werewolf, and added in characters like the plump, fussy carpenter were-beaver.
These monsters are people. You can depend on them to carry their share of the plot. And probably buy your kid’s Girl Scout Cookies, too.
That’s what Kage liked in characters – that they be people. It’s actually pretty simple; the difficulty is divorcing the concept of “humanity” from shape and colour and degree of hairiness. Most humans are people. Most chimpanzees and gorillas are too; even lots of baboons. Most dogs. Some birds. Elephants. Cetaceans. Curiously, the species that seems to have the most difficulty recognizing that “people”is a state of mind rather than a shape is Homo sapiens – hell, all these other creatures recognize us, but we aren’t even any good at identifying our own species as people!
Kage thought that was a vast tragedy, that blind spot in human vision. Small wonder, she observed, that sympathetic monsters catch the audience’s heart. Humans are primed, like so many other clever animals, to recognize The Other by the light in their eyes. Or eye. Or radiation-sensitive thermal patch. But we’re so dumfounded by the looks of our actual con-specifics that we can’t quite figure the trick out. Kage thought that trick was one of the biggest tasks human beings had. Monsters, she said, were a good place to practice. We’re all monsters, after all.
Look at the people! And the … things, exclaims Arthur Dent on beholding The Restaurant at The End of The Universe. And Zaphod Beeblebrox tells him gently:
The … things … are also people.
Kage knew that.